Standout works by Haegue Yang
Standout works by Haegue Yang

Culture | The grand balcony of capitalism

The Montreal Biennale undermines art through institutionalism

With a roster comprised of both international and domestic contemporary artists, a large and dynamic exhibition space, and the expertise of curator Philippe Pirotte, the Montreal Biennale opened on October 19 with “The Grand Balcony” as its theme. While many participating artists attempt to subvert the commercialized relationship between the viewer and the art object, the ways in which their pieces are displayed, specifically in the context of the museum, ultimately undermine their message.

In his curatorial statement, Pirotte states that the conceptual inspiration of the exhibition is French dramatist Jean Genet’s 1950s play “Le Balcon,” set in an unnamed city during a political uprising. The balcony serves as the illusion of stability for the cloistered elite, estranging them from the reality of a revolution which threatens their existence. The relationship between the elite and the balcony proves to be an illusionary moment of affluence before their privilege is overtaken by revolution. However, the artist’s choice to freeze the balcony in the moment before chaos suggests the destructive fate of the elite, while continuing to uphold the hierarchical motif of the balcony. As the balcony hovers above the viewer, and the elites maintain power on an unstable framework, the deconstruction of capitalism is indicated – but never fulfilled.

The possibilities of “ethical hedonism” and “joyous utilitarianism” the exhibition aims to celebrate are undercut by virtue of the way the art is displayed.

South Korean-born, Berlin-based Haegue Yang challenges the exhibition’s overarching theme of contradictory social and moral impulses by making everyday objects seem unfamiliar. In doing so, Yang demonstrates how pursuing an ethical lifestyle is challenging, considering our current economic model. The show’s press release states the concerns of the Biennale as emphasizing “a materialistic, sensualistic approach to the world” and advocating the development of “an ethical hedonism and a joyous utilitarianism.” Yang responds to this by rendering common household objects unfamiliar, thus refusing a literal imitation of the real world. Her strategies speak to the ways in which the evasion of representation can be both productive and stimulating.

In Can Cosies Pyramid – Tulip 34 og Silver, Yang yokes together haystacks with clusters of rainbow yarn. She stacks food canisters encrusted with gaudy diamantes, and decorates a plush stool with colourful, lurid beads. The whole display has a garish yet inexplicably alluring quality. Anytime a viewer contemplates an art object, they are thinking about the relationship between their bodies, the object, and the space in between. The strangeness of Yang’s hybrid sculptures intensifies the viewer’s desire to physically touch, explore, and experience them. Her sculptures advocate a sensual comprehension of objects, rather than a cognitive one – a relationship that, in one sense, compels viewers not to make sense of the object in terms of its utility or provenance, but instead leads them to feel its aesthetic magnetism.

Artworks that critique or posit alternative models of object relations in capitalist society actually feed back into that very cycle of capitalist ownership.

Yang liberates her objects from their functional context, subverting our desire to possess them by demonstrating the integrity of meanings they have which go beyond our understanding. By refusing the viewer’s authority to monopolize the meaning of her artistic elements, Yang allows these everyday objects, now made unfamiliar, an agency to take on their own meaning. In doing so, Yang gratifies the viewer in another way – allowing them to apprehend the object sensually, but within a framework of alienated distance.

Luc Tuymans’ otherworldly Doha paintings concur with Yang’s interpretation of art as partial and subjective. Allusion and suggestion are fundamental to Tuymans’ aesthetic, which questions the possibility of objective representations of reality. He shows how memory, for instance, always taints the reproduction of an image by employing blurriness in his paintings to capture the fading quality of memory. By recreating and altering existing photographs and film stills, Tuymans demonstrates that the painting process already represents an idea of imitation loss of time, and that the artist’s desire to precisely render an image is unattainable – creating a sense of loss and disconnect between the artist’s intent and the work itself. Rather than trying to erase this loss, Tuymans’ work emphasizes it.

Artists such as Yang and Tuymans deconstruct the relationships between consumer/object and, spectator/artwork – made pervasive due to capitalism and ideas of private property – by purposely obscuring an artwork’s meaning through partial representation. These works seek to de-familiarize objects or images in order to detach them from their contemporary capitalist utility. Our attraction to objects for their potential to be consumed suggests fixed, a priori meanings of objects, which are marketed to appeal to the spectator who exists within this system of commercialization. However, these artworks suggest that new relationships with objects are possible: sensual ones that are subjective, individual, and original.

Nevertheless, the possibilities of “ethical hedonism” and “joyous utilitarianism” the exhibition aims to celebrate are undercut by virtue of the very way that the art is displayed. While artists such as Haegue Yang effectively refuses the art object’s ability to be possessed by consumer society, the very context in which her sculptures are exhibited subverts the validity of her argument.

The very context in which her sculptures are exhibited subverts the validity of her argument.

The contemporary art market is fixated on the art object, thus marginalizing other experimental and intangible forms of art, such as internet-based artworks or conceptual and performance art. “The Grand Balcony” promulgates the coveting of the art object as a marketable commodity through its placement in a museum – a legitimizing institution that determines its perceived value. As a result, artworks that critique or posit alternative models of object relations in capitalist society actually feed back into that very cycle of capitalist ownership in their presentation. The legitimizing powers of the museum and of the prestigious Biennale further increase the economic value of those artworks and their potential to be monetized.

Within a gallery, the artist, as the producer of these objects, gains status and exposure. For instance, up-and-coming artists such as Nicole Eisenmann’s paintings are exhibited alongside the prestigious Doha series by Tuymans, a strategy further placing the artist in service of the very economic model they seek to critique. Despite the creative possibilities that non-representational painting and sculpture offer, to what extent do depictions of faded memories in Tuymans’ work, or hybridity as in Yang’s work, actually subvert the visual paradigm of consumerism?

Eschewing objective representation in art is one way to recuperate relationships with objects and space that have degenerated through capitalist ideologies of ownership and property. The artworks in “The Grand Balcony” are provocative in the ways they play with the dynamic relationship between the viewer, the art, and the gallery space. While visually stimulating, the art is ultimately undermined by the display rhetoric of the museum. For a moment, we are so enthralled by these elusive and sensuous works that we almost forget to consider the contextual significance of the museum and the ways in which it undermines their message – leaving the viewer to uncomfortably wonder if they have had a meaningful experience of the art or have reinforced its commercialization.


The Montreal Biennale runs until January 15.


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